For desperate boat people, devil is in the deal’s detail – or lack of it

Sydney Morning Herald, July 28, 2011. See original here.

The Malaysia deal demonstrates how much the major parties distort the facts to win approval, and how easily the urgent moral imperatives of the refugee issue are swept aside.

Consider this analogy: while driving on a remote road, you are flagged down by badly-injured survivors of a head-on collision who ask you to take them to the nearest doctor. But instead of taking them into the nearest town, you drive them to an even larger accident scene and abandon them.

No politician would publicly condone this decision. Yet it is parallel to what the Minister of Immigration, Chris Bowen, has just promised the next 800 boat arrivals to Australia. Whether Hazaras, Kurds, Tamils or Iranians, these people are overwhelmingly fleeing systemic persecution. Not only are we now turning our backs on them, we are actively condemning them to a future of indefinite danger and privation.

Mr Bowen’s high-minded claims about humanitarian protections are not substantiated by the text of his own agreement. When, for example, he says that children will have access to ”education”, the public could be forgiven for concluding that they will be sent to proper public schools.

What the agreement actually says is that children will ”be permitted access to private education arrangements in the community, including those supported by UNHCR” – in other words, the kind of overcrowded, makeshift, single-teacher, refugee-run classroom shown in the recent SBS series Go Back To Where You Came From.

Similar reservations apply to the arrangements for healthcare and the right to work. We have heard no details of specific initiatives to guarantee refugees’ welfare other than provision of documentation.

Mr Bowen says the implementation of the arrangement will prove the government’s commitment to deportees’ welfare. But the 800 deportees will melt into the 100,000-strong Malaysian refugee community and effectively disappear from view. Whether the terms of the agreement have been honoured will therefore be impossible to establish. Independent monitoring is effectively ruled out under the bilateral agreement, the only confirmed members of the implementation taskforce being Australian and Malaysian officials.

Supporters justify the swap on the grounds that we are simultaneously extricating 4000 refugees from desperate conditions in Malaysia. In the car-crash analogy, we’re not just abandoning the survivors, we’re also hiring a bus to take five times their number from the larger accident site.

Human lives should not be the objects of such callous accountancy. Australia should do everything it can to help Malaysian refugees. But this must not be at the price of undermining our legal – to say nothing of humanitarian – obligation to assess the claims of refugees asking for our protection. Australia is undermining the 1951 UN convention, the principal international mechanism for refugee protection.

There is another reason for rejecting the utilitarian logic of ”800 for 4000”. Australia is in a completely different position with respect to boat arrivals and UNHCR refugees in Malaysia, and, consequently, has different obligations towards the two groups. The 800 people coming here by boat are asking us for help. Refugees already in Malaysia are appealing, through the UN, to the international community at large.

Australia has obligations to both groups. But it has the most immediate obligation to those people who are directly appealing to us and no one else. Our decision to ignore this appeal constitutes one of the most vicious misdirections of Australian public policy since Federation.

It is time we ended our moral blindness on refugees. We cannot, and should not want to, opt out of the world and its many problems. There will always be people whose situations are desperate enough to drive them to risk everything. Nothing Australia can do will stop boats from coming.

Turkey has opened its borders to Syrians fleeing crackdowns. In April, Italy issued thousands of visas to Libyans arriving on Lampedusa. Australia, with its infinitely smaller refugee numbers, should do the same. Only when this happens will the double brutalisation – of refugees’ lives and our own values – end.

Nick Riemer is a member of the Refugee Action Coalition and senior lecturer in English and Linguistics at the University of Sydney.




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